Thomas Wolf said in Look Homeward Angel, that one can never really go home again. This is particularly true for those who have established themselves in careers and have become successful. Not only have they picked themselves up and replanted roots in an environment where they can flourish, they are often loath to associate with their origins especially if the memories are unhappy ones. But what happens to those who have no where else to go? Home isn’t always the place where they have to take you in.
Emily Schwend in Take Me Back, directed by Jay Stull, explores the scenario of a young man who has returned home in desperation. As the play opens, we note that Bill (James Kautz) has served time in jail for theft. Unable to start elsewhere with no education, few prospects, no money or other place to live, he has moved in with his diabetic mom (a fine performance by Charlotte Booker). He attempts to take care of her. He tries to control her eating habits and get her to take her blood sugar in the morning and during the day. Above all he monitors her like a security guard to make sure she stays off the sweets. The exchanges between mother and son are humorous, and Sue’s furtive stashing of candies and goodies brings knowing chuckles from the audience. Kautz and Charlotte Booker have established a rapport that feels right as this mother and son attempt to adjust to circumstances where each are dependent on the other, though it is not necessarily a dependence that is desired or appreciated.
Frustrated that he has mucked up his life and upset that his mom is not listening to his adjurations about her diabetes, Bill resorts back to his old thieving ways. What opportunities are open to him in Oklahoma except to work in a Walmart and make the minimum wage? He can only see a series of unrewarding empty decades ahead. For him that is not better than nothing. The exciting allure of his old life beckons with the promise of a quick buck and an easy inside job. It is only when former girlfriend Julie shows up that he begins to believe that he might be able to get along in this desolate environment. When she reciprocates in an affectionate way and says she will come back and see him, he realizes that perhaps there is the hope that they can be together. He has correctly surmised she does not love her husband and is unhappy in her marriage.
Schwend has established themes that will resonate with all who have lived in this country during the last twenty years. There is the issue that the children will have to care for their aging parents who are starting on the road to dementia and who have multiple physical problems, including type two diabetes. There is also the issue of few employment opportunities away from larger coastal cities if one doesn’t have an advanced college degree, technical skills, or show entrepreneurial promise in creating one’s own opportunities. Another issue is the sad fact that children after divorce or other major life changes have moved back in with parents to share economic burdens. Worse, some have found it nearly impossible to leave home because they can’t afford living alone or sharing rent.
Sub rosa issues weaving throughout the play point to a shrinking middle class, increasing economic hardship, and no employment opportunities. These have created a declining social community. Meanwhile, the prison population of which Bill had been a part has continued to soar. Underlying all these themes is that the humdrum, boring every day existence of work at a “dead end” job is no existence. Anything that can prompt one to escape (excessive entertainment, drugs, alcohol, addictions, the seduction of petty crime) is what a young people will seek out to release themselves from the boredom of “life” that is not living. Only family can get folks through. But what hope is there if the family is a parent in decline? There is the possibility of love and a relationship with someone to share one’s existence with, perhaps.
Schwend’s play is filled with pathos. There are a few surprising twists. The ensemble brings it all together under the competent direction of Jay Stull. The underlying questions Schwend asks will be confronting the U.S. in the next decades. How can we create more employment in decent, interesting jobs that pay well? How can we shore up the heartland with opportunities to stabilize the social community and strengthen it? Will resolving these problems be enough to keep men and women out of jail? The questions are important ones. Schwend has brought them to the fore without indicating political answers. With her homely characterizations, dynamic relationships, and important themes, she has given us much to contemplate.
The New York City premiere of Take Me Back will be performed at Walkerspace through March 22nd.
This review first appeared on Blogcritics.
Sacred Elephant, currently Off Broadway adapted for the stage by Geoffrey Hyland and Jeremy Crutchley, is created from Heathcote Williams’ magnificent epic poem about nature’s divine design represented through the elephant. Crutchley gives an ethereal and other-worldly performance as The Other, the being of the elephant. The production is currently at La Mama’s First Floor Theatre until September 22. See the review on Blogcritics and on this site.
Below are the expressive photographs of Crutchley in an embodiment of the elephant’s ethos. I included these to enhance the previous review because of an article that appeared in the Huffington Post about a baby elephant who was rejected by its mother. It cried and cried for hours. Its response is heartbreaking…like our response when we were hurt as children and cried in desolation, or as adults who feel hopeless and cry out to God and the universe for solace and comfort. Click here for the article.
The elephant is us. Can we continue to destroy it and not perish ourselves? Elephants are beings like the other creatures on this planet and must be safeguarded and protected. If we do this, we safeguard our own destiny. Williams’ poem is dedicated to this end as is Crutchley’s performance.
The following is part of the press release by Jonathan Slaff.
Jeremy Crutchley is well known in South Africa and the U.K., having performed a diverse range of award-winning contemporary and classic roles. He has received many Best Actor National Theatre Awards in South Africa and has appeared with the RSC and in the West End. He was nominated Best Actor in the South African Film & TV Awards for his leading role in “Retribution” (2011), a thriller in the style of Cape Fear. He currently appears with John Cleese as The Glock in the feature films “Spud” and “Spud 2.” In January 2014, he wil be featured in the U.S. TV series “Black Sails” (Starz).
Crutchley’s varied and enviable career ranges from classics to solo shows to rock shows. He performed Doug Wright’s international hit, “I Am My Own Wife,” in 2009 to kick off the Grahamstown Theatre Festival and in South Africa’s prestigious 2010 Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards, the show was nominated for six awards and received three, including Best Actor and Best Solo Performance. Theater critic Peter Tromp (The Next 48 Hours) named the piece as one of the ten most memorable productions in his decade of reviewing. The previous year, Crutchley won Best Actor as Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice” before going on to play Alonso in “The Tempest” at Stratford-Upon-Avon and in that show’s sold-out national tour with the Royal Shakespeare Company. He was a Fleur du Cap Nominee for his performance as Malvolio in “Twelfth Night”, also directed by Geoff Hyland. In 2002-3 at Edinburgh and in the West End, he created the role of Dr. Drabble in the black comedy, “The Dice House” (based on Luke Rheinhardt’s “The Dice Man”). In the UK in the 90’s, he performed at London’s Theatre Royal Windsor and Orange Tree Theatre and appeared in various TV productions for BBC. In the 80’s, he attracted notice for his performances in Sam Shepard’s “Cowboy Mouth” and “Equus,” among others. Also a rock musician, he has written two Rock Theater works and recorded a blues-rock album. When “The Rocky Horror Show” finally hit South Africa in 1992, he played Dr. Frank ‘n’ Furter in the original cast. His recent TV appearances include: “Miss Marple: A Carribbean Mystery”(BBC), “Kidnap And Ransom”(ITV), Martina Cole’s “The Runaway” (Sky TV) and “Women In Love” (BBC).
Heathcote Williams (author) is a poet, playwright and actor. He is best known for his extended poems on environmental subjects, “Whale Nation” (1988), “Falling for a Dolphin” (1989) and “Autogeddon” (1991). His plays have also won acclaim, notably “AC/DC,” which was produced at London’s Royal Court, and “Hancock’s Last Hour.” He is also a versatile actor whose memorable roles include Prospero in Derek Jarman’s film of “The Tempest.” “Sacred Elephant” was the first environmental poem by Williams, although it was not commercially published until after his better-known work, “Whale Nation” (1988). “Sacred Elephant” actually dates back to 1967, when Williams spent three months touring in India. While in Rajasthan, he observed local elephants and their trainers at close quarters. He also had a close association with a circus elephant named Rani and was able to watch her daily routine and behavior in captivity. Captive behavior, which is largely unknown to the general public, forms a large portion of “Sacred Elephant.”
The poem first appeared in print in 1987, published by Williams himself but in an unusual form. Three thousand copies were issued on elephant-sized paper and with print “large enough for elephants to read.” These newspapers were given away privately to friends and associates. That year, Williams performed the poem as a radio production, receiving many favorable reviews, including one from Harold Pinter who called it “a marvelous poem.” When Williams’ “Whale Nation” was published in 1988, it set a pattern for Williams’ books to follow, including “Sacred Elephant,” which was published commercially by Jonathan Cape a year later. Following this publication, the book received many more favorable notices.
It was recorded as a Naxos audiobook by Williams himself and given recitations, but it had never been explored for its powerful theatrical potential until Geoffrey Hyland and Jeremy Crutchley conceived this production. Heathcote Williams has granted exclusive dramatic rights to Crutchley to perform the work.